It’s past time to get serious about gender diversity

The following is AEG’s monthly column by AEG President Josh Bilyk appearing in the April edition of Business in Edmonton Magazine. If you have tips or suggestions for future columns, please feel free to write or call. 

At Alberta Enterprise Group (AEG), I’m lucky to serve a hard-working, energetic volunteer Board of Directors. We’d be nothing without them.

But when I sit down for meetings with our Board and look around the table, I see a big problem. There is but one woman. She’s a brilliant and experienced woman, but she is the sole female on at 13-member board.

By now, everyone in business should be familiar with the research showing that gender diversity at the board level isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing. A 2011 study by Catalyst, a non-profit think tank devoted to corporate gender diversity found that companies with the most women directors outperform those with the least on Return on Invest Capital (ROIC) by 26 per cent.

Improving gender diversity could create more prosperity around the world. A study by McKinsey Global Institute found that that the world economy could add trillions of dollars in growth during the next ten years if countries improved women’s participation in the work force.

Yet despite the staggering potential, female workforce participation is woefully inadequate around the world and improving at a snail’s pace.  That Mckinsey study found that, while female participation is strong in entry-level positions, only 17 per cent of C-suite offices are occupied by women. Sadly, that number only increased by a single percentage point between 2012 and 2015.

Part of the problem is a disparity between the perceptions of men and women on the issue. Another McKinsey study found that 93 per cent of female executives agree with the statement “even with equal skills and qualifications, women have much more difficulty reaching top-management positions.” Only 58 per cent of male executives agreed.

The good news is the research provides some guidance on how to improve gender diversity. Companies that have successfully tackled the problem have leaders who are active and involved in the effort. Leaders role-modeled the behaviour changes they ask their employees to make, and spent at least 50 per cent of their time building more diverse teams.

So we know there’s a problem – a lack of gender diversity – and there’s potentially big payoffs for solving it. We also know that many companies have made great strides toward improving their workforce. E-Bay, with a concerted effort, increased female representation in senior ranks by 30 per cent per year between 2011 and 2013.

This begs the obvious question – what am I doing to improve gender diversity at AEG?

Well, it starts with setting a goal. By 2017 we want to have three women on AEG’s Board of Directors. Why three? The research suggests that’s the magic number, a kind of tipping point, where there are enough women in the group that men stop seeing their gender as the most important thing about them.

It’s a start. But we certainly don’t have all the answers, and we think it’s time to have an honest conversation about it.

That’s why AEG is hosting its inaugural Women in Business luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton on April 18th featuring a keynote address from Leader of the Official Opposition Rona Ambrose. We want to stimulate a discussion around gender diversity, highlight some successes and hopefully come away with some concrete plans for improvement.

Join us on April 18th and be part of the conversation. For more information and to register, visit our web site at www.albertaenterprise.ca.

Alberta Enterprise Group is a member-based, non-profit business advocacy organization. AEG members employ more than 150,000 Canadians in all sectors of the economy.